Adolf Hitler's 1928 painting of the Vienna State Opera House
This lesson supports and supplements learning about the origins of World War II. Teachers may use it as a first introduction to the war, or may use it to complement and reinforce learning that has already occurred in the classroom.
Facts about Hitler are introduced within the political, economic, and cultural matrix of German society in the early 1900s. The underpinnings of Nazi ideology are explored through an examination of Hitler’s thwarted artistic dreams, and the German racial science which gave further expression and direction to Hitler’s biases.
Social Studies, Language Arts, Science
Some content may not be appropriate for middle school classrooms. Check for suitability.
Prepare students for learning about Hitler. Introduce or review main details about Germany’s imperial ambitions, the end of World War I, Germany’s surrender, the Treaty of Versailles, and the impact these had on German society. Shape a discussion that builds on both student knowledge and any misperceptions. Bring the conversation to a focus on Hitler. Survey students for what they know about his life as a young man, and in particular, his interest in art.
Biographies of Hitler are presented on many websites; take care to draw from reliable sources.
Invite responses and questions. Faison’s description anchors Hitler’s interests and failures as a young man to his later ambitions.
Lieutenant Commander S. Lane Faison served in the MFAA, was a member of the Art Looting Investigation Unit, and a Professor of Art at Williams College in Massachusetts. Among his contributions as a Monuments Man was to write the Office of Strategic Services report on stolen art intended for the Fuehrer Museum in Linz. Faison died in 2006, at the age of ninety six. An engaging article about him, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday, can be found at The New York Times, “An Art Lover Who Awakened a Generation.” October 28, 1997.
Invite more responses and questions. Emphasize several facts: Hitler applied to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts twice, and was rejected both times. Students who were accepted included Jews who painted in styles he vehemently opposed. It is possible Hitler also blamed Jewish admission committee judges. This period in Hitler’s life contributed to Hitler’s anti-Semitism. It also contributed to Hitler’s urge to revenge the rejection by dreaming of a plan in which Linz (the home town of his mother) would eclipse Vienna and all other cities as a great cultural center.
This clip further develops Hitler’s connection to Linz, expands on the emphasis on art, and hints at the idea of a “correct” art. (“Degenerate” Art explores this topic.)
Note: It is inappropriate and simplistic to root Hitler’s deep contempt for Jews and other victimized groups solely to his failed experiences at art school. Art partners with other factors; it does not replace them. The central teaching task in this lesson is to bring focus to Hitler as an individual and to balance that focus with an understanding of the political, economic, and cultural landscape in which he lived. No unique event in Hitler’s life shaped his beliefs or triggered all his actions. Similarly, there is no “prime mover” responsible for the Second World War. Multiple contributing factors were at play.
Class instruction requires a discussion of Hitler as a vengeful, ruthless, racial supremacist—who, as an artist, simultaneously had a strong attachment to art, and to a messianic worldview in which art was given a driving role—and who acted in a time and place that supported and fostered his achievements as a dictator. To guide students through a nuanced and deep understanding about the causes and events of the war can be a challenging task. It is also an opportunity for collaborative teaching, or for welcoming outside speakers.
Among the forces at work in German society in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century was the development of German racial science. The teachings of this science and its subsequent applications form part two of the lesson.
In order to introduce the topic, explain that arranging and classifying are universal human activities. Our ways of thinking about categories of people or objects draw from our ways of thinking about the world. As a quick exercise, invite students to identify the categories of people at school (jocks, nerds, etc.) and the characteristics that make up the categories (jocks are cool, they’re not brains, and so forth).
Post responses on a board. Allow students to share their observations, but monitor for respectful language. Lead a discussion about the assumptions used to create the categories. Are the categories and their characteristics accepted by all members of the class? Do they provide exact descriptions of individuals?
Placing people in categories is what occurs when people talk about race. Race has been used to justify differences between people. Races are not fixed, biological categories. They are formed by the ways people classify the world. Racial categories are socially constructed.
Many writings in Germany in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century presented supposedly scientific racial classifications based on traits that were thought to be measurable. These explanations of human diversity also supported prejudice; there were superior and inferior races. Hitler was familiar with German racist science writings and these theories contributed to Nazi ideology.
Chart of the Nuremberg Laws providing a visual racial explanation of people with German blood, mixed blood, and Jews.
These links are among the excellent online resources that support teaching and learning about race:
To check student understanding, shape a discussion about Hitler that integrates a “scientific” classification of groups of people, his vision of a pure Aryan master race, his deep attachment to art, his perception that art, like people, could be classified, and his rise to power.
Wolfgang Fischer, in clip 4, addresses aspects of these points.
To ensure students understand the relationship between these interwoven threads teachers may ask students to write a question or to journal a reflection. Phrase the assignment to support curriculum teaching goals.
To have students respond to a piece of writing about concepts of race, assign Jonathan Marks, “Scientific and Folk Ideas about Heredity,” in The Human Genome Project and Minority Communities: Ethical, Social and Political Dilemmas, Raymond A. Zilinskas and Peter J. Balint, Praeger Publishers (2000) pages 53-66.
Classroom Assessment Activity: Here and There
It is important that students not view certain aspects of Nazi society as exclusive to a particular time and place. This research project deepens student knowledge about Nazi Germany and widens learning to a comparative perspective.
Divide the class into three groups and assign each group one of these three topics:
Direct groups to research their topics, and to probe the similarities and differences between “here” (the U.S.) and “there” (Germany). Research should be limited to the twentieth century. Groups create poster displays, PowerPoint presentations, or other appropriate visual products. Groups orally and visually present their findings to the class. Follow with final classroom observations.
Wir stehen nicht allein (We do not stand alone). Nazi propaganda poster on compulsory sterilization.The Nazis enacted a compulsory sterilization law in 1933. Other countries enacted or considered sterilization legislation.
National Council for the Social Studies more info
II. Time, Continuity, and Change
V. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
VI. Power, Authority, and Governance
Language Arts more info
Viewing Standard 9 Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
Level IV (Grades 9-12) 5. Uses strategies to analyze stereotypes in visual media (e.g., recognizes stereotypes that serve the interests of some groups in society at the expense of others; identifies techniques used in visual media that perpetuate stereotypes)
Science more info
Nature of Science Standard 11 Level IV (Grades 9-12)
Knows that scientific explanations must meet certain criteria to be considered valid (e.g., they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, make accurate predictions about systems being studied, be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, make a commitment to making knowledge public)
Understands how scientific knowledge changes and accumulates over time (e.g., all scientific knowledge is subject to change as new evidence becomes available; some scientific ideas are incomplete and opportunity exists in these areas for new advances; theories are continually tested, revised, and occasionally discarded)
This lesson introduces students to the ideas behind the Hitler propaganda machine and the so-called Entartete Kunst or “Degenerate Art” which could be equated with all major modern art movements across Europe in the first 30 years of the 20th century. The lesson will also engage students in research about artists labeled as Degenerate by the Nazis and what happened to them and their work during the war, and discuss the misunderstandings of modern and contemporary works of art in their own times.
More Than an Object, More Than a Place
How do meanings attach to objects and places? Where do those meanings draw from? The lesson explores these questions and guides learners to understand connections to identity and cultural heritage, and how they fall prey to war.
Heroes and Villains of the Greatest Theft in History
This lesson highlights the men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program (MFAA), known as the Monuments Men plus other individuals who, as a way of fighting a dangerous foe, acted in the interest of safeguarding art and cultural heritage. Students also discover the identities and intentions of several particularly lethal enemies. The consequences of their actions on art and heritage are emphasized.